Five Lessons from Pilot Changing the Way Teachers, Principals are Graded

John Mooney | August 2, 2012 | Education
As districts test new evaluation system, first year shows where modifications are needed

A year into the New Jersey’s pilot program for developing a new teacher and principal evaluation system, Christie administration officials yesterday gave an update of the program and the prospects for the year ahead.

The aim is to have a new evaluation system in place for every district across the state in 2013-14. But state officials conceded there were many lessons learned from the first year of the pilot, involving 11 districts, and some big issues ahead for the next year in which as many as 20 more districts will test out the system.

In a presentation to the state Board of Education yesterday, Peter Shulman, assistant education commissioner, spoke of those lessons of the past and the changes for the future, each in sets of five. In addition, Shulman presented the first version of new administrative regulations that would ultimately codify the new system.

Five lessons from the pilot so far:

1) “This is something you have to do with people, and not to people.”

That has been a frequent mantra for Shulman, as he and the state department have stressed that this would be a bottom-up process, allowing districts to learn and develop as they go within the administration’s broad parameters.

2) The training is critical

Central to the success of the programs so far has been the availability and effectiveness in training both teachers and their supervisors to what is involved in the new evaluation system. “How am I going to be observed, how am I going to be assessed, and what is the principal looking for,” Shulman said of the required training.

3) Selection of evaluation instruments is key

The state proposed a half-dozen evaluation programs developed by academicians or commercial enterprises for districts to use, and each have their own track records. The state is now seeking formal proposals from these vendors, as well as individual districts, for evaluation models that will be on an approved list. “They are all different, and we believe the selection of the instrument that is best for your district should be done with all the stakeholders at the table,” he said.

4) Challenge in the capacity of principals

“Administrators are struggling in how do they revamp their calendar where this is top priority?” Shulman said in describing the time management challenge for principals. “They still need to worry about cafeteria duty, the angry parents, the flat tire on the bus. We need to know how to prioritize this work and if I have three observations to do, how do I get them done.”

5) Non-tested grades and subjects

A central and controversial piece of the new model is the use of student achievement in evaluating teachers, up to half of the eventual rating in some areas. But what about grades and subjects where there are no state assessments, such as the arts or physical education? Schools and districts have been developing their own student assessments, but this continues to be one of the toughest pieces of the puzzle, he said.

Moving into the next year of the pilot, in which 20 more districts will be testing the model, there will be some key changes. Shulman outlined them as follows:

1) Added visits and observations

Under the second year of the pilot, supervisors will be required to observe so-called “core” teachers in the classroom up to five times during the year, up from the three now in the statute.

2) External observers

Included in the observations will be evaluators from outside the school, preferably within the district itself but potentially from outside districts or organizations as well. “Having a second set of eyes brings a different lens to it and avoids the inherent bias that a principal might have,” Shulman said.

3) Double scoring

Each teacher will have more than one evaluator to the same lesson, to give a broader perspective and vantage on the teacher’s effectiveness.

4) Surprise visits

The standard practice in most districts is teachers are observed in scheduled visits, and the process includes a conference prior to the visit and one after. Under the new pilot, unannounced observations will also be included, giving the evaluator the opportunity to watch a teacher when he or she didn’t necessarily have the chance to fully prepare.

5) Flexibility in student weights

Again, with the student achievement piece still a work in progress, the second cycle of pilot districts are given more flexibility in how much those measures will go into a teachers evaluation. For untested grades and subjects, that piece could be as little as 15 percent of the eventual rating.